Tag Archives: istruzione

Disrupting learning III: enter Clay Shirky

For several years I have been an attentive reader of everything Clay Shirky I think he is a deep, original thinker, and I have learned much from him. His latest post is, as always, clear and bold. But, for the first time, it did not take me by surprise.

Shirky – an academic by profession – takes on for the first time the disruption the Internet is bringing to higher eduation: he starts from the launch of Udacity and Coursera (“the education equivalent of Napster”) to explain how what he calls MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are changing the landscape of academia, though the full blow has not connected yet.

Not much to say. I agree with everything: yes, courses work quite well or really well (here is my test drive of the Khan Academy). Yes, they scale well. No, they don’t threaten top universities, but they might wipe the floor with smalltown colleges (here my experience with Coursera). A year ago, I even had likened education to the music industry. Shirky writes better, and with more clarity, as usual: beyond that, the main difference is that I see this change from the perspective of the student. He, on the other hand, is an education professional, and has a forecast to offer on how academia will react to the disruption. Here it is:

the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true.

Disrupting learning II – Day of reckoning

Internet – both as a stack of technologies and as the vector of a sharing culture – brings us credible alternatives to classroom-based education in schools and universities. Most of them involve video lectures, with clear advantages: the pause button, the rearranging of content in 6-20 minutes packets, and the ability to attend from anywhere, at any time. Furthermore, the locus of learning is not so much the lecture, as the peer-to-peer interaction among students, through forums wikis, Twitter lists, Facebook groups et cetera. All of this is hardly news: I have discussed it before, and even test-driven the model.

The real news (at least for me) is that the disruption of learning happened in one year instead of ten. In August I signed up for a course in Social Network Analysis offered by Coursera, a social enterprise founded by two Stanford computer science professors that partners up with universities to offer free courses in just about any subject. This course is taught by a young University of Michigan professor called Lada Adamic: certainly a brilliant researcher, but not an academic star like, say, Duncan Watts or Fernando Vega-Redondo. The course started Monday this week: I already went through the lectures for the first week, and submitted my assignment (pretty cool: extract my Facebook network and compute some basic metrics. You can see it above). Everything seems to work smoothly: students are obviously eager to learn and collaborate. Many are already skilled network analysts, and signed up more to meet each other than to follow Lada’s lectures. The forums are abuzz with ideas and projects; one of them is devoted to study groups, and in just two days it saw the launch of such groups for students the world over, from Sweden to Vietnam (there were 38 at last count)

Just how many are the students: I asked Lada: there were 55,000 signups. To put this into perspective, the largest single-site university in the UK, Manchester, has 39,000 students. As always on the Internet, many people sign up but do not really take the course: the first video lecture, with five days to go, has been seen 11,000 times. Even if only one tenth of the signups were to convert into active students, you would still have an extraordinary result: a planet-wide classroom, with thousands of students from everywhere in the world (and of all ages, it seems) infecting each other with their enthusiasm – unenthusiastic people, simply, don’t show up, so they don’t spoil your learning experience. The course also gives you assignments: you submit them by uploading them on the course’s website in the form of .txt files, so that they can be graded not by Lada or her assistants (how would they do that, with thousands of students?) but by machines. At the end, Coursera issues a certificate and even a grade.

Not everything is perfect. I have reservations on the 90s-style course forum structure; there is a lot of noise in the signal, with students using everything from the internal forums to Facebook, Twitter and even Skype to connect to each other, so that many potentially valuable interactions never happen. But these problems are not too hard to correct, and are more than compensated for by the energy and generosity of thousands of students, who, like me, are passionate about the subject and thirst to master it. Believe me: that’s a hell of a motivator.

In a sense, it is a return to a non-industrial approach to education, to the universitas studiorum of the Middle Ages: a global community of scholars, wandering the world to meet and learn from each other. The difference – aside from the numbers involved – is the extraordinary permeability between the condition of being a student and that of being a practitioner, that fits very well a world in which the push to start new, knowledge intensive companies is stronger than ever. Rather than sink three to five years in full time education you can learn things as you go, moving back and forth from courses like this to field work and viceversa. For free. Whenever you want, and above all in a way that is conducive to meeting people you can work and develop new projects with.

It is the day of reckoning. At this point I am wondering what will happen to tradidional education. It’s last bastion is the diploma: the sheepskin certifying we can do certain things. But that, too, will soon be stormed by organizations like Coursera or MIT’s edX. Here’s a reasonable prediction: next academic year, students will be able to choose between an MIT- or Harvard-issued online degrees or a classroom-based degree issued by some obscure local university. What will they do? What would you? What advice will you give your children?

Storytelling, Divination, Forgiveness: my most important tools and where I picked them up

I wrote this post as an Edgeryders mission on learning. The idea is to do a reality check on education: which are our most important skills? And where do we learn them? My job in Egderyders is to manage it, not play missions, but this one was so intriguing I could not resist. If you want to see how others have addressed the same question, go here.

I am a knowledge worker. I spend most of my day interacting (mostly online) with other humans to produce and manipulate information into knowledge. So, to a first approximation, the skills I use everyday are reading, writing, summarizing, researching. I use English a lot, French occasionally. I read and write budgets and contracts. I occasionally deploy math (game theory, or graph theory, or run-of-the-mill calculus or linear algebra) to decode a theoretical model. But that does not tell you very much: it is just a cloud of skills. I believe they can be grouped into just three high-level skills, which are my indispensable tools of the trade.

The first one is storytelling. Cognitive science tells us humans think in terms of stories, and solve the uncertainties implied by inhabiting a rapidly changing world by framing their situation as a story (picked from a rather small repertoire of archetypes), and themselves as a character in that story. Suppose you have to decide whether to choose between a safe, perhaps slightly boring professional path and a more high-risk, but socially relevant one. Computing probabilities is impossible, you just don’t know the full range of implications of your choice. But you do know you are like Neo in Matrix, and Morpheus is right there offering you to choose between a blue and a red pill, so the choice becomes obvious. You are The One, that’s your path, and that’s the end of it.

The ability to tell stories unlocks the power to steer your career and your life. For example, it unlocks fundraising: unless you are doing standardized stuff, people will fund you because they recognize a story, and their role in that story is to support you. In an older project of mine, Kublai, I persuaded the Ministry of Economic Development in Italy to do a very advanced project because they bought into the narrative of the “helpful State”, reaching out to work with citizens rather than against them. I try to narrativize every important thing that I do: all important professional projects, but also stuff like going to live abroad.

The second ability I will call divination. By this I mean a stance which combines formal analysis with a humble approach, that downplays the role of individual people and organizations in the unfolding of things. The personality of the CEO is important in a company, but even more important are market conditions, corporate culture, long-term trends like globalization. Many people we consider powerful feel they are not powerful at all, and that they really are in the hands of the organizations they are supposed to lead, or just of the next turn of events. So, divination for me means looking for causes and for forces to align with at the bottom of society, in the countless interactions we engage in every day. This ability unlocks analysis: once you have it, you are not going to delude yourself that, if just the Prime Minister changed her mind, everything would be different. It also disqualifies conspiracy theories and the need for people to blame (the politicians, the banks, the media).

The third ability is forgiveness. By this I mean the deep acceptance that there is no point in pushing people to conform to a certain standard: people are what they are, and it is more constructive to try to find out what they are good at and organize activities around them rather than bend them around activities (which is mostly impossible anyway). I once worked with a young man who was crazy. I don’t mean he was odd: I mean he was constantly negotiating illness. At one point he was forcibly hospitalized and put on medication with a pretty heavy psychiatric diagnosis. And yet, this person is a brilliant coworker in the kind of projects I tend to be involved in. He works superhard. He is the best connector ever. He always has time for people, and he tends to be online and available about 16 hours a day. Mind you, he is not brilliant despite being ill: he is brilliant because he is ill. He is obsessive, and if you channel his obsession he becomes a happy, well functioning overachiever. Of course, he is not good at everything, but then neither am I, or anyone. This ability unlocks management: once you let go of standards you can get down to the real work, which is to design environments for people (as they are, not as they should be in some ideal world) to get results. It is also useful in personal life: if you have no standards you can enjoy the company of people very different from you.

  • I learned storytelling mostly from reading fiction and comics. An economist called David Lane explained me why that is important in a university seminar, long after I had finished my degrees. High school contributed somewhat to me picking up this skill, especially as I studied history. In retrospect, if I had had a good art teacher I could have learned a thing or two about storytelling by Renaissance painting, but no luck there.
  • I learned divination from economics. For some reason a phrase by Albert Hirschman (taken from his introduction to his main book) stuck in my mind: he participated in the rolling out of the Marshall plan, and that experience “developed in him a healthy respect of the market’s ability to outsmart you”. This humble statement by somebody involved in the most successful economic planning exercise of all times struck me at a very deep level. Later, complexity science gave me a framework for that.
  • I learned forgiveness from an older coworker in my first job, who later became my best friend.

I don’t see why these things could not be taught in schools. In my time (and in my place, the Italian province) the approach to knowledge was old fashioned: you were taught notions rather than skills. But that must have changed.  Maybe they do teach them now?